My very first All-Ireland final was in 1991. I was nine years old. I went with my dad, and we stood on Hill 16 and watched Tipperary beat Kilkenny. We positioned ourselves right behind the goal, and had a perfect view of it and everything that went on around it.
My abiding memory of the day, aside from Kilkenny getting beaten, was of two men – Cormac Bonner and Christy Heffernan. Both of them played full-forward, trotting down to the edge of the square at the start of both halves. To my nine-year-old eyes they were absolute monsters.
I could not get over the sheer size of these men. They were as wide as they were long. Hands like shovels, and shoulders like wardrobes. Bonner really intrigued me – he seemed to go on and on forever, even into the clouds at times.
And when Tipperary men roared “Hon the The Viking!” anytime he went near the ball, his aura and mystique enthralled me more and more. I couldn’t stop watching this man-mountain. “Why is he so big, and why do they call him ‘the Viking?” I remember asking my Dad.
The reply came down saying that if I ate all my spuds I’d be as big and strong as him one day. I was as gullible as the next lad at that age, so I gave it a good try. Obviously I didn’t eat enough of them over the years!
Back then game plans were simple and straightforward when you had these giants up forward. You rained long, high balls down on them as often as you could, and you went from there. Due to their size and strength, more often than not they won those balls or at least broke them for Pat Fox, Nicky English, DJ Carey and all the other members of the small, fast nippy cartel to do damage.
Hurling has changed so much in the 27 years since then. It’s a long time since the big man at the edge of the square was considered the way forward. But watching last Sunday’s game between Kilkenny and Dublin it was refreshing to see the ploy making a comeback. Not only that, it was just as effective in 2018 as it was 1991.
Liam Rushe and Walter Walsh were both positioned at 14. Two big men, not far off being similar to Bonner and Heffernan in size and strength levels, maybe just a couple of per cent lower in their body fat levels.
Balls were pumped long, high and sometimes low in front of them to devastating impact. Although there is more of a variation and design to the play today, I loved to see those same old values and ideas being implemented and actually working. It creates panic and uncertainty in defences, and, most importantly, it brings excitement and goals.
Rushe was unmarkable on Sunday, playing with bulldozing authority and a direct approach which was great to see. Simple but very effective – ball in hand, turn and run at and past defenders. Done properly, there’s no stopping someone like that.
I should hold my hands up here and say I misjudged what Dublin were capable of. I didn’t see this performance coming. I did say they had no shortage of good hurlers, but I hadn’t seen anything in the league to suggest they were going to be as well drilled and cohesive as they turned out to be. Or that they would play with the sort of belief they showed right up until so close to the end.
Kilkenny just pipped them on the line, but Dublin brought way more than I expected to the game.
Their first goal is a perfect example. Seán Moran was just outside his own 20m line when he took the free that started it off. Yet it wasn't just a case of lorrying the ball down on top of Rushe. Jake Malone came short from left half-forward into midfield, bringing Enda Morrissey with him. Fergal Whitely pulled out of the left corner-forward position, and went to the top of the D, with Conor Delaney following him. Those two dummy runs left a lovely pocket for Rushe to run into, with basically no players from either team in that quarter of the pitch.
Head for goal
The key to it was that the pocket they made for Rushe wasn’t too far from the goal, meaning that when he caught Moran’s ball in, he was able to turn and head for goal with just around 30m between him and the posts. So now Kilkenny were facing a bulldozing runner with the ball in his hand, making a beeline for the goals, and the game only three minutes old. Whatever Rushe did from there, it was a beautifully designed move by Dublin.
I loved that Rushe wasn’t just happy to take his point. Most attackers in most intercounty teams could come out and collect the ball from that designed play, but how many of them would have just eased themselves into the game by turning and taking a nice handy point? I’d say about 95 per cent of them.
But Rushe has a rare combination of bulk and speed, and on Sunday he had the attitude to go along with it.
No defender likes that direct aggressive running at them. They certainly don't like it from a man of his size and power. He took on three Kilkenny defenders and drew a fourth one, passing to Paul Ryan at the right time for an excellent goal.
Without Rushe’s brute strength and power that goal wouldn’t have happened. He would have been swallowed up as soon as he entered the Kilkenny 20. But with swinging elbows and quads like tree trunks, he was unstoppable. He had a hand in all three goals, he won frees and set up scores through his aggression and good hurling brain.
Too often we see forwards come back out the field when they secure possession and look for runners and easier options instead of taking the man on and taking the belt, riding the tackle and going past them.
When I played I was hoping and praying that they would do just that. I would keep ushering them out the field and everyone would think I’d done a great job. The truth is, the forward had made my life a whole lot easier by not backing himself.
When a forward gets the ball in his hand it’s a psychological game of cat and mouse. Will he take me on? Or will he recycle possession? Go on, I dare you to take me on!
Egg on my face
Sometimes I was left with egg on my face. Maybe I shouldn’t have dared him, maybe I left too much room on a certain side in an attempt to entice him into it, maybe I’m too predictable in the way I handle that scenario. All these thoughts are in a defender’s head as he trots back to his position with a green or white flag flying and his tail between his legs.
On the up side, there’s no better feeling for a defender than turning over a forward when they take you on. Lure him in, shadow him, get your timing right and pounce. The ball goes loose, one of your teammates swoops in or maybe you get on it yourself and the ball is cleared 70m. That rouses the crowd, it shifts momentum, creates doubts in the opposition. So part of you always wants him to have a go because the risk-reward is worth it.
Setanta Ó Hailpín was the most direct forward I ever came across. He didn’t know anything else but to look into the white of my eyes and go past me. It almost irked him to not have a go – he had no big interest in scoring points, put it that way. I loved that about him, just how ballsy he was.
He didn’t care who you were or weren’t, he got off on scoring goals and taking you on. Never took the easy option, took hardship and looked for more. That’s who Rushe reminded me of on Sunday.
Walter Walsh (Wally) played a more roving role as a 14, and spent time at 11, but there was times when he had his big presence in there. None more so then when Alan Nolan caught a great ball on the line and Walter ended up putting Nolan and Eoghan O'Donnell in the net. Bill O'Carroll bounced off him in the first half as he set Ger Aylward up for a glorious chance as well – Wally basically can't be stopped when he wins primary possession, turns and runs.
Edge of the square
His role was a bit more varied than Rushe’s was on Sunday. He started at the edge of the square, but when it wasn’t happening for him in there he moved around. There’s an onus on him to get himself into the game, and if that means coming out to wing-forward to get his hand on a puck-out so be it.
That creates a different sort of doubt in a full-back. Cian O'Callaghan did pretty well on Wally on Sunday, but again Dublin had worked on it and designed a plan to give him support. When Wally drifted out, O'Callaghan was happy enough to follow him, knowing that O'Carroll and Paddy Smyth would tighten up inside in the full-back line and that Moran was sweeping around the middle.
Contrast that with what happened to James Barry in the league final. Wally ran riot in the second half of that game, so much so that all the chat afterwards was about how much trouble Tipp were in at full back. But I'd argue that Barry actually had the better of that tussle in the first half, and was doing pretty well right up until Wally got away for his goal.
Watch that goal again and you can see that Barry misjudged the flight of the ball in and got under it. I have no doubt that was as a result of Wally coming out the pitch and showing for the ball further from goal than Barry would have liked.
If that same ball was arrowed in on the edge of the square, Barry would have been happy enough just to spoil it, knowing that one of his corner backs would tidy up in front of him or his keeper would sweep up behind.
But you can’t do that when you’re coming out 35 yards from goal. Barry convinced himself he had to go and win the ball, and when he overshot the runway Wally was away and gone. Everything unravelled for the Tipp full-back after that. The Tipp crowd started groaning every time Wally got on the ball and the Kilkenny crowd were overjoyed. I felt sorry for him when Barry got the curly finger close to the end.
Rushe is clearly going to be a key man for Dublin now. I would imagine Wexford's Davy Fitz will be telling his sweeper to stick a bit closer to the full-back line this weekend, and Liam Ryan will be told not to try and catch the ball at any stage.
The key to combating Rushe will be to get the ball to the ground. He was so effective on Sunday because the ball stuck in his palm almost every time it went in. That meant he had momentum, and meant there was no thinking time for the defenders who had to stop him. Wexford need to get the ball on the ground, crowd him out, and go from there.
One way or the other, Dublin will surely keep trying it, and Kilkenny will try to find their man in there as the summer progresses.
DJ Carey always said the only ball that was a bad ball was the one that doesn’t go into the square. It’s great to see that even though the game has changed a lot, some things are always relevant.
Let it into the bear in the square!